Sen. Alexander and Webb put their oars it the water, but NRC’s Jaczko says the nuclear industry is sinking its own ship
As dutiful attendees to industry conferences know, the first 45 minutes of a “plenary” session are often extra snooze time to make up for a night on the town. Once the worthies of the conference leadership have gotten through the obligatory self-congratulations, the real interesting stuff shows up.
At the start of day one of the American Nuclear Society (ANS) meeting being held this week in Washington, DC, the 1,400 or so registered at the meeting filled a giant hotel ballroom to standing room status.
21st century Manhattan project in the works
One the highpoints of the half dozen speakers who offered their views on the state of the nuclear industry was a bipartisan tag team talk by Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) (Alexander’s original press release on his plan (blueprint document) for 100 new reactors) and Sen. James Webb (D-VA) (Webb Press Release from today’s speech).
They discussed a stand-alone effort called the “Clean Energy Act of 2009” modeled after the Manhattan project in World War II. The 21st century equivalent is an effort to double the amount of electricity generated by nuclear reactors in the U.S. by building 100 more of then in the next two decades. They also proposed funding of $1 billion to cover the cost of reviewing small reactor designs at the NRC and another $1 billion for educating the next generation of nuclear engineers and skill trade crafts to build those 100 new reactors.
Paperwork piles up at NRC
One of the low points was a list of complaints by NRC Chairman Gregory Jaczko about the nuclear energy industry’s collective interactions with the agency. He said utilities and reactor vendors are not following the agency’s licensing and reactor design certification process as intended creating all kinds of headaches for the NRC’s rapidly growing and inexperienced staff.
He mentioned that the agency has increased its budget by 60%, but that 50% of the staff have less than five years of experience with the agency. That group presumably includes Commissioner Jaczko, who started there in 2005.
Sail boats for submarines?
There is frustration on the current situation with both advocates and critics of the nuclear energy industry. In one of those metaphors that sticks in your mind, Alexander described the loss of U.S. competitive position for nuclear energy globally this way.
“If we were going to war we wouldn’t mothball our nuclear navy and start subsidizing sail boats.”
Alexander said that if you wanted to build a wind farm that would supply as much power as a 1,000 MW reactors, you would need to cover a land mass the size of West Virginia. Of course that’s not the best place to build a wind farm, but like the sail board analogy, he got his point across to the audience.
He said China is starting new nuclear reactors at the rate of one every three months, the UK just announced it will build 10 and the UAE will build three.
Speak softly and carry a big paint brush
On the other hand, NRC’s Jaczko painted a picture in broad strokes with a wide brush characterizing the vendors of nuclear reactors as turning in poor quality responses to requests for information and often late to boot. He added the utility operators are “complacent” about the NRC’s oversight process. That’s the type of complaint that keeps licensing managers awake and which is also a flare that lights up the night sky for anti-nuclear groups.
It is significant that Jaczko complained about the NRC’s “overwhelming work load" which includes three new reactor design certifications, two revisions to existing reactors, 13 combined construction and operating license applications that are active (another five are on hold), and nine power uprate applications.
Here’s where things got murky. Jaczko said that unless the nuclear industry followings the processes for reactor design review and licensing more to the agency’s liking, that the “NRC could not be predictable” in or “timely” in its responses.
On the surface, this sounds plausible. a regulatory agency like the NRC is, after all, prescriptive when it comes to telling the industry how to deal with it. If the industry turns in bad data and late, it has only itself to blame when the NRC takes longer to straighten things out. That’s called sinking your own ship to borrow from the nautical flavor of Sen. Alexander’s thinking.
On the other hand, the broad critical sweep of Jaczko’s speech could also be interpreted another way. Try this translation – if you (the nuclear industry) don’t straighten up and fly right, don’t expect me to make your sloppy work my crisis by not slipping the review scheduled to fix the resulting mess.
Time to market and enter revenue service depends on NRC
Since time is money, and every month, or year, of delay in getting a reactor design certified or license is a delay in entering revenue service, the NRC has substantial influence and power to take the position of “my way or the highway.” That’s the prescriptive part of how regulatory agencies behave when they get their socks in a knot.
Coming back to Sen. Alexander’s plans to build 100 new reactors in 20 years, one wonders how NRC Chairman Jaczko would manage the review of eight-or-nine dozen license applications in the first five-to-ten years of the program? Right now the NRC seems to be mired in dealing with just one dozen license applications.
Few cans short of a six pack
It appears the missing piece in Sen. Alexander’s 100 reactor plan is how to sustain safety standards in the review of license applications while at the same time getting the paperwork through the process? One answer is that Congress must stop stripping off some of the reimbursement payments from the industry to the NRC to use them for pet pork projects in other appropriation bills. Fully funding the agency consistent with its workload would help.
Chairman Jaczko owes it to the industry to be more proactive than just complaining and sitting on his hands when the paperwork goes south. Rapping knuckles, metaphorically speaking, at an ANS conference is an effective way to get industry’s attention. The question is that after getting it on Monday, what are you going to do about it on Tuesday?
Finally, if there are legitimate problems, like “zombie RAI’s” that waste everyone’s time, why isn’t the NRC listening to industry concerns?
As Ricky Ricardo once said, more than once to Lucille Ball, “Lucy, you got some explaining to do.” It looks like more explaining and less complaining would get us a lot more reactors built a lot sooner.
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